Bea and Lucy's Story – Chios, Greece, January 2016

In January 2016, we travelled to Chios in Greece. Chios is an island on the east coast of the Aegean Sea, situated a mere nine miles from Turkey and is therefore one of the main hubs for refugees to enter Europe (second to Lesbos).  The refugees in Turkey are preyed on by gangs of people smugglers who, for an extortionate fee of $1000 - 2000, will offer a spot in an overcrowded makeshift boat, ill equipped for the choppy journey across the Aegean sea.  By day the journey can take less than an hour and we could see the Turkish coast from the beach. But, to avoid the watchful eyes of the Turkish and Greek authorities, the refugees must make their journey by night where the journey can take up to five hours in the freezing cold and treacherous waters. When the sea is especially rough, the smugglers offer a discount for those who are too poor to travel for a full fare. The risk is greater with disastrous consequences, as was seen last week in the news when two boats capsized killing forty-five people, including eleven children. The smugglers do not tend to travel themselves on these risky crossings in bad weather, instead they send the refugees out in their cheapest boats, and leave it to them to steer themselves to shore in the dead of the night with not even a flare to attract attention or any means of achieving a safe landing.  To assuage the refugees' concerns as to the safety of the boats, the smugglers provide every passenger with a life jacket. We have however learnt that many of these jackets are in fact cheap fake polystyrene filled vests which absorb water and sink bodies down rather than acting as a lifesaving flotation device.  

For those who have made it into Greek waters, more dangers await. The lifeguards told us that most accidents happen close to either shore whether leaving Turkey or approaching Greece.  The independent volunteers that we met work in shifts to keep watch throughout the night for boats approaching the island.  Keeping watch is exhausting work and, having tried it ourselves, we know it can be near-impossible to tell whether a speck on the ocean is a boat full of refugees or a trick of the light.  Often, however, the volunteers are not the only ones with their eyes peeled and local opportunists, known as "scavengers", will survey the shores for boats as well as they know they can make money from selling the leftover parts.  In a fantastic example of locals working together with volunteers, these locals call in when they see a boat so that the lifeguards and volunteers can assist where necessary. All too often the boats that drift towards Chios' shores filled with refugees, many of whom are babies and children, are in distress. The coastguards on the small Greek islands are overwhelmed.  The Aegean has claimed the lives of 114 people this month alone and, as the summer months approach, more people will pay their savings to the merciless people smugglers and surrender their fates to the perilous Aegean Sea, in makeshift boats and fake life jackets.

In Chios, we met with Borja, the skipper in an amazing team of independent lifeguard volunteers from the Basque region in Spain called Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario.  They have established a relationship with the Greek coastguards who, after months of negotiations, now trust them to conduct rescue missions. When disaster strikes, Borja and his team are usually first to the scene to rescue the terrified people, including tiny screaming babies and petrified children, from the dark and freezing waters.  They are doing what they can with a small locally rented pleasure-boat and a flashlight to patrol the seas and rescue those in need. However, without the equipment and technology needed for search and rescue missions of this scale, the odds are against them and they have had a number of near-misses that fill them with dread, especially as the weather is warming up and thousands and thousands more people will make the journey. We are working with a German NGO called Kinder auf der Flucht to buy them a properly equipped lifeboat from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. 

When the refugees do make it safely to shore, they are often drenched, frozen to the core and shell-shocked from their horrific ordeal.  Many suffer from hypothermia, frost bite and horrific injuries such as broken bones from where their boats have smashed into rocks.  As well as medical attention, they are all in desperate need of emergency blankets, dry clothes and food.  Independent volunteers, like Toula who is from the island and her team of international volunteers including Jennie from Sweden, Lea and Maurice from Germany and Chris from the UK, work throughout the night to greet the refugees with emergency blankets and dry clothes and to administer first aid where needed.  Socks and warm fleecy trousers are in especially high demand and short supply.  The volunteers also provide care packages, including a meal for the refugees many of whom haven't eaten in days, including the pregnant women, babies and children.  The volunteers also clean up the beaches, laundering the wet and discarded clothes to provide them to the ever growing numbers of fresh arrivals.  The volunteers usher the refugees to the camps where they will be registered and can purchase tickets for the ferry to mainland Athens to continue their journey to Western Europe.  Most people end up staying around 1-3 days on the island. On a more positive note, what the NGOs have done with the camps is impressive. In a series of heated shipping containers, refugees can access medical assistance, wifi, and sleeping bags as well as information regarding the next steps on their journey.  These camps have been set up the UN and the Norwegian Refugee Council and their staff includes members of the local municipality.  It is great to see these organisations working together and providing the care which we had felt had been lacking in Serbia in November.  It seems a great deal has moved on since then.  

Despite this fantastic work by the NGOs, it remains the volunteers who patrol the shores, conduct the rescues, administer immediate medical care and distribute aid when the boats arrive in the dead of the night, long after the NGOs have left for the day.  This is a gap in the system where the hard work and perseverance of the volunteers, armed with generous donations, triumphs.  In addition to helping the lifeguards to buy their lifeboat to conduct rescue missions, we plan to support the wonderful teams on Chios by sending supplies of the items in greatest need, such as socks and fleecy trousers, by donating money to buy fresh food and also by contributing to their ambition to implement better logistics with storage facilities and transport so they can prepare and store the care packages and get them speedily to the refugees as they arrive.